When Green Thumbs Lead To Sore Backs

Guest Author Ben Kewish, of Hills Physiotherapy, Melbourne, Australia shares his excellent tips on how gardeners can protect their back, neck, knees and other important body parts after a winter layoff.

gardening protect knees and back

A garden kneeler or knee pads reduce the load on your back and knees.

Winter has just ended here in Australia, and for the last eight to ten weeks most gardeners have been huddled inside, hibernating as the freezing cold weather has meant slower growth of lawns, weeds, trees and shrubs. Now that some warmer Spring weather has arrived, weeds and shoots abound, and veggie beds need turning and resowing.

Physically, this is a similar situation to an “off-season” for athletes – a period of relative rest and reduced activity. Rest is important for healing of niggling strains and sprains, or overuse injuries such as tennis elbow, kneecap tracking problems or back and neck issues. In climates where the cold period is not so pronounced there is no period of reduced growth and so the annual load on a gardener’s body is relentless. This can result in accumulation of micro-trauma of tendons or joint stresses and gradual breakdown to painful injury. We are blessed by this gardening “off-season” in Melbourne, when we can sit inside, have a cup of soup and watch the Camellias and Jonquils bloom.

On the downside, just as an athlete’s body deconditions during their off-season, so does a gardeners’. We develop specific strength during the summer gardening months, with hamstrings, gluteals and lower back muscles thickening and strengthening with digging, weeding and lifting pots, and shoulders/upper back muscles improving endurance for repetitive shearing, lifting, reaching and shovelling. This strength is all but gone by spring unless the individual has an active sporting or gym routine that continues through the winter.

When an athlete returns from a rest period it’s always recommended that they gradually return to sporting exercise. If this is not observed then injuries result, with muscle tears and joint sprains being the most common injuries. A gradual return to fitness usually takes the form of a few weeks of progressive increase in training load, culminating in the most intense exercise just before the season begins. Additionally, the athlete’s regimen will include strength conditioning, core stability exercise to protect lower back and neck, and endurance exercise to improve cardio-vascular fitness. Now, I’m not suggesting that we all need to have a gardening preseason, but some of these ideas and principles must be applied to avoid the “Spring Weekend-Warrior” effect and its typical injuries.

At the first beautiful weather in spring, gardeners commonly launch into hours upon hours of weeding, mowing, and pruning, followed by turning over veggie beds, and lifting tarps full of clippings and green waste up to the compost. While they are warm and active they feel fine, but by the following morning they can have real trouble getting out of bed. This can then require proper assessment and treatment by a physiotherapist when they are unable to straighten up or walk to their car.

So what to do? The garden isn’t going to garden itself!

  1. Start with smaller, easier jobs first until your body warms up. Start by pruning medium sized bushes, mowing only one section of lawn, pulling out winter vegetable crops like broccoli, or preparing seedling trays for your summer garden.
  2. Wear braces/supports. If you suffer with back pain, use your pelvic belt/cinch or lumbar brace. If you have elbow problems try a tennis elbow strap. Support devices like these reduce the load on muscles, joints and other structures and reduce the chances of being sore after.
  3. Use labour saving devices. Use a weeder that allows weeding from standing height (like the 3 Claw Garden Weeder from Fiskars ); kneeling pads or Knee Pads to reduce the load on knees and back from squatting and standing repetitively; or an Extendable Tree Pruner to prune high branches from a position that is comfortable for the neck, back and shoulders, to avoid strain.
  4. Section your early season gardening into manageable lots. Garden for no more than 90 minutes at a time without some change of position, activity or rest. The muscles that stabilize your spine, hips and shoulders only have a limited amount of endurance, and once they’re puffed out it doesn’t matter how fit you are, you’re asking for an injury. If you give yourself a break or change activity, they can often recover their energy supplies to some degree, and protect your body from injury again. Our main fault as gardeners is our burning desire to see a job through: “I’ve just got to get this done, and then I’ll finish” – which leads on to another job, and another.
  5. Change your front foot and hand. The importance of this tip cannot be overstated. The single most common flaw in digging/raking/sweeping technique is that we continue to rock back and forth with the same leg in front, and the tool in the same hand. This means only one leg takes all the ground reaction force, our spine is twisted only one way, and one side of our core muscles fatigues very quickly. This swiftly leads to pelvic sprain, lumbar spine pain, and neck/shoulder injury. It is very simple to get into the habit of digging with a pattern “one, two, three, change hands/feet – one, two, three, change hands” – you get the picture.

These techniques and support devices may seem annoying at first. But if you incorporate these ideas into your gardening, you’ll find that they reduce your pain, time off gardening, and money spent at the physiotherapist which you could spend on more seedlings!

About the Author:

Ben Kewish is the owner and Principal of Hills Physiotherapy, Rowville and Emerald, and is an avid gardener, living in the Dandenongs in Victoria, Australia. He enjoys fixing bodies, maintaining a beautiful garden, and most of all escaping to his veggie patch.

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2 Responses to When Green Thumbs Lead To Sore Backs

  1. Janice Goole says:

    I like all your tips for easing into gardening in the spring. My biggest complaint has been my knees, but wearing knee pads or having a little cushion to sit/kneel on has been a life saver. No one should decide not to garden because of knee/back pain–there are products to help reduce your pain and let you enjoy the fun of gardening.

  2. Rob says:

    Good tips! I just wish I would have taken some of the precautions you mentioned when I was younger. Anyone who is reading this that is of younger age, Doing these things will help you as you get older, trust me!